Tuesday 15 October 2019

London Irish's Ioane aiming to sign off with win for his 'motherland'

TJ Ioane. Photo: Getty Images
TJ Ioane. Photo: Getty Images

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Thanks to their performance in battle, the samurai were a warrior class but it wasn't always that way. The word originally meant 'to serve or look up to' someone.

At first, those warriors were hired guns without the firepower, available to the highest bidder for warring clans aiming to control ancient Japan. Over time, they became a general class firmly part of the establishment.

In rugby terms, the Pacific Islanders are the sport's soldiers of fortune, scattered across the globe attached to big-spending club owners who pay good money for their physical gifts.

When they do well, they are rewarded handsomely but the conditions are often tough. Some are told they can no longer represent the homeland in international competition, others are incentivised to take up the cause of another nation.

Often providing for families back home, the players are left with little choice but to comply.

On Tuesday, the Samoan squad were invited to tour the Samurai exhibition at the Fukuoka Museum, a world of swords, armour and spears that captivated a group of players who have grown into this tournament and appear to be finding cohesion just too late to make a mark.

They beat Russia in a controversial opener, before struggling against Scotland under the Kobe Misaki roof and pushing Japan to deep into injury-time last weekend.

Support It is a glimpse of what they could achieve if they were given a proper standing in the game to achieve their goals. Time together with good facilities and games against strong opponents have brought them on, but after the game against Ireland they'll scatter to the four winds once again to go back to the day jobs.

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Before they go, they want one last performance.

"It would be awesome for us just to put our stamp or our mark on the World Cup before we go," flanker TJ Ioane says. "Results have not gone our way but the process and the goal to finish on a high still doesn't change. It is still the same. We want to give the Irish a good crack.

"It's a shame we've only got one game left. Our team has been awesome, not just the 23 but No's 1-31, the boys that have been there.

"We all challenge each other, bring the best out of each other. The boys that are playing and the boys that do miss out, at the end of the day anyone can play on game-day and you'd be happy for your brother.

"Everyone brings the attitude, brings the physicality and hopefully we've done ourselves and our country and our supporters who've backed us from day one proud.

"The Scotland game was quite tough, but we can look at the positives from the Japan game and take a lot from that and go from there."

On Monday night, Ioane got a phonecall from home.

Currently, that's London and the voice on the other end of the line came with a familiar Cork lilt. His coach at London Irish, Declan Kidney, wanted to wish him well.

"He said, 'Good luck, just to you, because you know where I stand and who I support this week'," Ioane says with a wide smile. "He is a very good man, very passionate.

"I think you Irish are very similar to ourselves, they back themselves and they have got a lot of pride and passion. They bleed green like we bled blue, just very passionate people. Like us, they don't like losing."

Quintessential A cousin of former Australia winger Digby, Ioane's story is the quintessential Samoan rugby tale.

Born on the island, he was schooled in Wellington and recruited by Otago where he played for the Highlanders before making his World Cup debut four years ago.

On the back of that, he joined Sale before moving to the Exiles in 2018.

Although others were unable to answer their country's call for this tournament, Ioane was permitted to come to Japan to represent his family and country.

"First and foremost, we come from a very little island which is a passionate and proud people," he explains. "For us, to represent our families and the motherland is probably our biggest honour and privilege.

"It's us giving back to the supporters that rides the tough and the good times, because with rugby it's the main sport on the islands. Everyone picks a ball, or even a bottle, up and uses it for rugby. It's kind of like what we grew up with, you know? It's just trying to make our country, our family proud. If we can do that, it'd be something."

Ioane doesn't know Bundee Aki well, but he's faced him a few times over the years with Otago and Sale.

Born to Samoan parents in Auckland, the centre has spoken at length in the past about his connections with the island and, if selected this weekend, he'll be in for a battle.

Not that the men in blue hold any grudges against his decision to play for Ireland.

"No, it's nothing personal," Ioane says. "It doesn't matter who is on the opposition, whether he is from the islands or he has got Samoan descent in him. We just get up and play hard against everyone in the opposition team.

"It doesn't change our mindset because Bundee is playing for Ireland. We just treat him as another Irishman."

They'll hit hard, they'll hit often and they will go for 80 minutes before scattering across the world once again.

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